Right before the Thanksgiving holiday, the federal government asked a McAllen judge to give it immediate possession of land in Hidalgo County owned by the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.
The federal government filed a Declaration of Taking on Oct. 25 to use eminent domain to take properties that include La Lomita Chapel and property south of the Juan Diego Academy in Mission on brush land next to the levee.
The public purpose of the taking is to conduct surveying, testing and investigatory work for proposed construction of roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors and related structures to secure the border, according to the government’s filing.
On Nov. 6, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville objected, arguing that the government’s plans to take the church’s land violated its right to exercise its freedom to practice religion. It also alleged that the Oct. 10 Department of Homeland Security waiver of more than two dozen laws to build the fencing exceeds the authority authorized by Congress.
A hearing over the church’s opposition was scheduled for January, but the holiday court filing by the federal government reveals that authorities believe they need immediate possession of the land, which is where the historic La Lomita Chapel sits.
“Time is of the essence,” the government wrote in its motion.
The federal government believes it needs immediate possession to acquire the property to implement its congressional directive and also cites President Donald Trump’s executive order authorizing the building of more border fencing.
“This Court should grant immediate possession of the easement sought based on the United States’ demonstrated need for immediate access,” government lawyers wrote in the motion.
In its opposition to the motion, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville says it has set forth numerous detailed objections and defenses against the taking.
The church also argues that the government does not adequately and fully set out why immediate possession is necessary.
Those court filings also indicate that Bishop Daniel E. Flores toured the properties with federal officials and attended negotiations, but refused to sign a right of entry agreement.
In a statement released in late October, Flores said he respects the responsibilities of men and women involved in border security, but, in his judgment, church property should not be used for the purposes of building border fencing.
“Such a structure would limit the freedom of the church to exercise her mission in the Rio Grande Valley, and would in fact be a sign contrary to the church’s mission,” the church said in a statement. “Thus, in principle, the bishop does not consent to use church property to construct a border wall.”
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville has asked that if any temporary restraining order request was made against the federal waiver of laws that paved the way for DHS to start taking land for border fencing, that it be allowed to join that request.